Odysseus in the cave of Calypso

“With the passage of translated Homer that we had read the day before in mind, I thought how lovely it would be to stay on here, like Odysseus in the cave of Calypso.
‘Wouldn’t it be lovely,’ Nadejda said at that moment, breaking the long silence of her pose with a friendly smile that obliterated any traces of intensity, ‘if you could stay on here like Odysseus in the cave of Calypso?’
‘That’s exactly what I was thinking.’” – Patrick Leigh Fermor, The broken road

So sweet it has been, here in this cave with you, careless of the hours, days and years which have flown by. You always knew how to turn out a room as well as transfix one, and our living quarters have had every comfort, every item we could wish for. Bunches of toothsome grapes, tubs of salt-sharp olives, amphorae from the best vineyard on the island. A natural chimney and hearth, objets d’art set into shelf-like recesses in the internal rock face, the finest wall hangings from the best weavers in all of Persia, and luxurious divans upon which we have lain in a variety of breath-held poses that would have shocked the most hedonistic of the Gods had we let them see us. But unobserved in our cave, we have loved from dawn till dusk and dusk till dawn, filling the time between our flights of ecstasy with interlocution of the most recondite kind, at one remove from the events which may or may not have been taking place beyond the lip of the cave’s entrance, out there in the ungodly world.

Over time, however, when I looked at you and saw that your attention was broken, unease began increasingly to steal over my soul, a sense that something was not quite right, that I was bewitched while you were not, that I should try to wrestle free of your spell and continue on my journey, or perish with the tasks and stories of a life unaccomplished. It wrenches my heart from its cavity to leave this cave, to part from the heady perfume of your presence, from every good, bad and beautiful thing about you. But – though I will inevitably continue to doubt and debate my actions – perhaps I ought to be as strong and unforgiving as steel, and journey on alone, and you ought to be and do so too.

My stories could all easily have begun and ended with you, in you, but the grain of sand in my soul has like the pearl in an oyster grown so large that it dictates that I must seek to lose it by travelling to other lands. I have nothing but gratitude for you, for the way you held me here in this torch-lit stronghold of love and desire and gave so freely of yourself. Though sorrow hangs heavy about my frame, there are no recriminations, for you have given me something I never expected and cannot ever now be without. You were the woman of my dreams and whatever happens, you will remain the lead actor in them. Perhaps after my travels are done, and the sun has moved around the earth who knows how many times, I will hear you call out, and find my way back to this cave, and we will pick up our loving and our endless dialogue as if it had been interrupted merely by a single day and night.

And in the meantime, these writings will stand as a record of the seven beautiful years we shared in this cave. They will stand.

Vena amoris

I never wanted to be just another seed or jewel on your necklace, not even if mine happened to be the largest stone nestling into your suprasternal notch. I wanted to be the whole necklace, the bracelet around your wrist, the ring about the fourth finger of your left hand. And in the darker world of our fantasies, the collar around your neck, the rope about your wrists, the padlock securing – and simultaneously liberating – your free will.

Just as in turn I wished to wear the key to that lock around my neck, the belt with which you granted me licence about my waist, and the second of the pair of rings on the fourth finger of my left hand.

Pole star

Forgive me for my longing for you, for the insatiable greed with which I seek you, so much like the avarice of rats or kings or poets. Know that I understand the demands that places upon you (and so in turn upon me).

Just as I forgive you for not knowing which way to turn, for the troubled inconstancy with which you meet my constant as the pole star gaze. And I know that you understand the demands that places upon me (and so in turn upon you).

Museums of Broken Relationships

A new Museum of Broken Relationships has opened on – of all places – Hollywood Boulevard (surely already more the Boulevard of Broken Dreams than anything else, at least for those who have not been so lucky as to be immortalised with their own star). It is a franchise version of the original travelling exhibit and museum, which opened its permanent doors in Zagreb in 2010, the year you and I first met.

The museums’ exhibits are exotic in their variety and unpredictability. Besides a pair of fake breasts, a frisbee and a toaster, there is belly button fluff:

‘D’s stomach had a particular arrangement of body hair that made his belly button prone to collecting lint. Occasionally, he’d extract a piece and stick it to my body, sweaty after sex. One day… I met his oddity with my own; I put the lint in a small bag and concealed it away in the drawer of my bedside table.’

The museums bring to mind the things that you wrote about discarding last year, in a determined act of survival – the bracelet, the stone I turned into a poem, notes and letters in my hand. I wondered then as I wonder now whether you kept the various books I gave you. I hope so, that they can in some way stand apart from me, and yet still bring me to mind when your eye lands on their spines. But equally, I wouldn’t be surprised if you have sold them, finding yourself curious to see which of your customers might offer those tokens of love a new lease of life.

Inevitably I find myself considering what I might contribute to such a museum, if one opened in this country and I felt moved to pack it up a parcel, including the requisite short text explaining the enclosed object’s significance. The most obvious thing would be the coin you gave me, for luck, for remembrance, for love. But it continues to form a ritual part of my days, and I cannot bear to part with it. I still feel it has fortune to support, and neither do I wish to forget.

What about the lingerie you deliberately left behind; mementos of what I took from you, of what you were happy to give to me? Again I feel the same reluctance. Besides, perhaps they would be too obvious, too stereotypical a contribution. After all, the LA museum is opening on the site of a lingerie shop that went bankrupt.

Then perhaps one of the notes in your lovely, loopy hand, relics which I keep in an envelope at work (though soon I will have to find a new hiding place for them). But which? Inscribed on the back of a faded black and white photograph of a swan, are the words ‘For my favourite story-teller and spinner of words…’, followed by a declaration of love, and a short PS: ‘Hope it works!’ – this having been the note accompanying the aforementioned coin.

Or another similarly faded black and white photo, of a skyful of birds. It’s hard to make out which species; perhaps they are murmurating starlings or skeining geese, or possibly they’re windblown rooks. On its back you wrote a six line poem, surrounding the words with tendrils from which hearts grew. Soon after sending it to me, you went on to write a beautifully quizzical piece castigating yourself for your choice of one particular word in its last line; and as with every new part of you that you gifted me, I only loved you all the more for it.

I wonder if you remember now the shopkeeper’s tag that you attached to the smallest, sweetest slither of a crepe-wrapped present, that having been the fragile token depicting two love-birds which I used to keep in my pocket before the coin replaced it. Its string intact, the tag has the smallest, sweetest slither of a note written on both sides of it.

Finally, and most recently, there are a few words on a scrap of paper torn from a notebook, which you had folded into a small square and inserted into the pages of a late Christmas present, a book I later returned to you so that you yourself could read it. On the uppermost folded square, you had written this haiku:

we found each other
and whatever happens now
the world is brighter

Perhaps, if I could bear to part with it, this haiku note, together with the ones I sent back to you and the book within which they were all hidden, which set in motion our call-and-response writing of haiku and tanka, might most suitably form our joint contribution.

But the truth is, I do not want to think of our relationship as broken. It happened, and despite circumstances, went on happening, in the most beautiful ways imaginable. And then it stopped happening (over and over again, as it turned out). It may finally have ended once and for all, but the days and the memories of them linger, they will not be banished no matter how hard you or I try. Perhaps I am kidding myself, but there is a sense in which our love will live forever, or at least, for as long as each of us are able to remember it. My love is unbroken – will not be broken – and so I cannot see myself ever contributing any of those precious relics to either of the existing Museums of Broken Relationships, nor to one that might in future open here.

The gift of all travel #7 – The glass beach

Mendocino. Mendocino remained the dream. And now they were on the way to making it a reality.

Reality – that wasn’t quite it. Each day that they spent together had the feeling of hyperreality, in the artistic sense as much as the semiotic. Everything they saw seemed as if it had been created for their eyes alone, so vivid were the colours, the delineations, the textures, all of it magnified for the one by the presence of the other. He saw for himself, and simultaneously through her eyes, and he knew it was the same for her. Placed against the Pacific coast sunshine, she herself was real, living and raw and vulnerable; not untouched by time but to him she was all the more beautiful for that. With the car windows wound down, her golden hair blew back in the breeze, and his heart leapt to see her unvarnished vitality beside him. Suited to movement, to the vagabond life, to travelling light, she was at once a fixed body and a blur of motion, and even after all their travels and travails, he could still not quite believe that his was the gift of flying alongside her.

‘This is it,’ he said, turning into the parking lot. They opened the doors of the car they had hired in Portland two days before and looked out over the rocks embedded in the undulating deep blue coverlet of the sea. A gentle introduction to the wildness of the coastline that they were thinking of making their temporary home.

Earlier in the day, they had driven through a giant sequoia. He had told her that they were going to do that. But he hadn’t told her about the beach. He wanted to surprise her with it. He had even checked the times of the tides, to be sure they would see it at its best.

He let her discover it for herself. From the one sign they saw, from dropping in wonder to her haunches to pick handfuls of worn-down gems of wave-smoothed glass, clear and green and brown and amber. And then he told her the tale. For this beach had once in large part been made up of thrown-away glass bottles, along with general rubbish, unwanted appliances and even cars. It had been the town dump. The metal and other non-biodegradable detritus had been removed in extensive clean-up operations, leaving only what nature could over time wear down itself, the glass and pottery; these rounded-off pieces, the same size as pebbles, had originally been broken shards and jagged fragments.

They sat among the gumdrop remnants of the bottles and wondered about the elixirs those vessels had contained, the people who had drunk from them, and the dreams and disasters they had unleashed. It was so tempting to take a little green or amber jewel of glass as a memento. After all, that’s what everyone else seemed to do. They both thought about it. They both knew that not long from now this day would seem like a dream and they each wanted to be able to look at and pick up a physical reminder that their dream had been real, that it had come to pass. But they knew that if they took a single glass pebble, and every other visitor did so, then this beach would soon lose what made it special. It was clearly already happening, but they wanted no part of that. So they let the glass pebbles slip through their fingers, and listened to them clinking like marbles as they rejoined the beach. They would have to seek some other small reminder of the day – perhaps a coaster from the diner where they would eat chowder and drink Mendocino County wine, or a monogrammed towel from the sea-facing motel they were to stay at, neither of which would seem quite as heinous a theft as a single precious gem from this beach.

The following morning when their eyes met, he rolled himself on top of her, took her face in his hands, and kissed her so deeply that she felt she was falling through the whiteness of the bed into a place where nothing could touch her except his fingers, his mouth, his heartbeat, and all the smoothed and rounded parts of him. Lifting his lips from hers, he whispered in her ear. ‘Tomorrow, Mendocino. Today, how about we go for a ride on the Skunk Train?’

‘Yes,’ she said, the word so soft with love and thick with desire that she uttered it again. ‘Yes.’

I am waiting like a sundowner…

Certain combinations of words stay with you. Either because you learned them at school when your mental palette was fresh and words were easily debossed in its surface, or because they strike you with such poetical force when you first hear them that you take them into the heart of your mind, from where they emerge like passerines from their nest whenever the moment seems appropriate for them.

So, for example, I have the first scene of Macbeth off by heart (‘When shall we three meet again / In thunder lightning or in rain? …’, and a multitude of striking couplets from love songs that I can call upon at the drop of a hat. I have both the Jules Verne and Paul Klee quotes which Georges Perec used at the start of ‘Life a user’s manual’ – ‘Look with all your eyes, look’ and ‘The eye follows the paths that have been laid down for it in the work’ – as well as the beautifully meandering first sentence from that novel – ‘Yes, it could begin this way, right here, just like that, in a rather slow and ponderous fashion, in this neutral place which belongs to all and to none, where people pass by almost without seeing each other, where the life of the building regularly and distantly resounds.’ Because I once studied the Alexander Technique, I also remember its mantra: ‘Let the neck be free, to allow the head to go forward and up, so that the back can lengthen and widen’. And then I have these beautiful lines of poetry, among many others from the same writer: ‘And always afterwards , everything is sideways / as I lay like blown barley, storm ravaged and tender’.

She didn’t write them, but there are two more lines of poetry which have over the last five or six years come to define half a decade of life and love, and yet I’ve never been able to verify their source to my satisfaction. They came my way on my 21st birthday, inscribed in pencil on the flyleaf of a thin pamphlet of posthumously published poetry called ‘The burning of the leaves’ by Laurence Binyon. Within its pages was pressed a shoot possessing seven leaves of diminishing size, and they are there still all these years later. The woman who gave me the pamphlet faded from my life, or I from hers, long, long ago, but I remain grateful for the gift.

The pencilled inscription was something like one of those metaphorical keys which used to be given on a 21st birthday in this country, the kind which were presumed to unlock adulthood. I adopted it, and made it my own. In a dozen words, it seems to me to sum up what I am about when I write, and perhaps, more uncomfortably, what I may have become as a human being. The words are some which Fernando Pessoa might easily have written in  ‘The book of disquiet’, but my understanding is that they were conjured in the Portuguese of the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, best known for his novel ‘Epitaph of a small winner’. Since the dawn of the internet, I have googled the words, but their source still remains frustratingly out of reach, the trail leading circuitously and only to my own door.

The pencilled words were these:

“I am waiting like a sundowner
For the gift of all travel…”

(A sundowner being either an alcoholic drink taken at sunset, or a tramp who arrives at a cattle range or sheep farm in the evening under the pretext of seeking work, so as to obtain food and shelter, though the context in which it is used here suggests the openness of the subsequent day, the possibilities that a new dawn brings, and I have always taken it in this positive sense.)

Five years ago, the lines dropped into place alongside the idea of an endless landscape of words, alongside an ongoing story that I wanted to tell, one that foolishly or otherwise, I envisioned as indeed being without end. Since then, there have been many ups and downs and mistakes and misunderstandings but also the wildest of imaginative rides and the most beautiful of days, which have all been documented either here, or where I wrote previously. I can only hope that the story will continue in some form or fashion; that it is currently in hiatus rather than at an absolute end.

Although the lines have a weight of metaphor in them, and to my mind, a weight of respect for the enormous power of the imagination, it’s also possible to read them literally. As the woman I love waits to set off on her own adventure on the far side of the world, I pass the words which have come to mean so much to me into her care, in the hopes that they will keep her safe until her return (and long beyond it), and that while she is away, she will find herself continually gifted with beautiful sights and stories of wonder.

A rose by any other name

There is an acid edge to every waking moment.
The loss. The wound of it wider open,
rejuvenated with the salt of tears.
I am set back, crippled and struggling to believe
that either words or memories will ever be enough.
That I will never heal. Never know peace.
Even the truth of our love stings as I sift
among the softness of its many fallen petals

– oh, and they of a white so pale it seems a richness,
and there the hue of pink on the undersides too –

raising the scent of your perfume from that day, or this
while I pull prickles from my flesh, relishing the pain,
leaving others where they are fast stuck,
to stand testament, like poems or songs or coins.
I live in fear of being woken (from every waking moment)
to discover what lies beyond the end of our hybrid dream,
and so I am lost; all I desire is to be found again.

The end of ‘The broken road’

I have become a hermit in a caved-out eerie
at the end of the peninsula of Mount Athos
with little more ledge than Simeon Stylites’ pillar
wherein or upon which I spend endless days and wilder nights
in solitary confinement not to mention heretical cogitation
of the deity I have long worshipped
hoping against hope that in fabulous visions
she will show herself and join with her ascetic
in moments of ecstasy so stretched out
that they make a mockery
both of creation and eternity